Supporters of Proposition 10 march near the California state Capitol calling for more rent control, April 23, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Photograph by Rich Pedroncelli of The Associated Press

Equal Voice

Families Fight for Rent Control, Fair Housing in Calif.

A Rent Control Battle in the Golden State

August 2, 2018

By Rose Aguilar

In California, Proposition 10 highlights challenges families face in tight housing markets with rising rents and limits on rent control. Affordable housing remains a national issue.

Thea Hartman goes to sleep every night wondering when she’ll be forced to leave her one-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa, California. When she wakes up, the worries about housing and rent return.

The 72-year-old has lived in her senior complex for seven years, but her rent has increased by 17 percent over the last two years. She now pays $506 a month. That may sound cheap for California, but it’s a steep price for someone who lives on a $980 monthly Social Security check.

After Hartman pays her bills, she usually has between $50 and $100 left.

Hartman, a retired therapist, spent her life savings on cancer treatments and other health care costs.

“I can only afford to fill my gas tank once a month,” she said. “I’m a cancer survivor, and I can no longer afford to buy organic food and certain supplements.”

Hartman knows her story is far from unique as skyrocketing rents cause more Californians to slip into poverty.

“My neighbors are freaked out,” she said. “Management is trying to get us all out because they’re losing money each year by having low-income renters instead of market-rate renters.”

Hartman hadn’t been politically active since she protested the Vietnam War, but she’s now working to rally support for Proposition 10, a California ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rent Control Act.

Costa-Hawkins prevents cities from extending rent control on condos, single-family homes and other units built after 1995 – or earlier in cities that had already implemented rent control. The law also permits landlords to raise rents by any amount on rent-controlled units if a tenant leaves or is forced out.

About 43 percent of California’s population, or about 17 million people, are renters, and the state has some of the highest rents in the country. California is home to nine of ten cities that have the most expensive one-bedroom apartments, according to the latest quarterly report from HotPads, a rental search platform by Zillow. Laguna Beach is the most expensive at $4,275 a month, and Hermosa Beach is number 10 at $2,715 a month.

The median rent for a one-bedroom in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is $2,090, up 4.7 percent from last year. A one-bedroom in San Francisco is $3,520, unchanged from last year. In the Silicon Valley, a one-bedroom in Palo Alto is $3,535, up 3.4 percent from last year. Rent for two and three-bedrooms are rising the fastest, HotPads reported.

High housing costs in California are driving poverty up as earnings, in general, fail to keep pace, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Using the bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes more recent benchmarks to measure poverty, California is the poorest state in the country largely due to housing costs, according to an Equal Voice analysis.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states that in order for housing costs to be considered affordable, total rent should not exceed 30 percent of household income. But that’s the reality for a majority of renters in California – more than 3 million households, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. And nearly one-third – more than 1.5 million households – pay more than 50 percent of their income toward rent.

More rent control freezes new housing...There are all kinds of dimensions to the issue. The rent problem is significant. We’re hearing stories across the state, but artificial controls won’t get us out of this.

Joan Ling, a lecturer in the UCLA Urban Planning Department, and Doug Smith, a staff attorney with the Community Development Project at Public Counsel, wrote in a recent San Francisco Chronicle editorial that repealing Costa-Hawkins will provide badly-needed protection for vulnerable renters in California.

“In nearly 95 percent of jurisdictions in the state, renters can be evicted for any or no reason and tenants face the constant threat of unchecked rent increases,” Ling and Smith wrote. “Without protections, millions of Californians are threatened with loss of home and community.”

Steven Maviglio, a longtime Democratic political consultant and spokesperson for Californians for Responsible Housing, said his organization and others that oppose repealing Costa-Hawkins will most likely match what supporters spend. That means Proposition 10 could be one of the most expensive ballot fights in California’s history.

Maviglio said the only way to deal with the state’s affordable housing crisis is to build more housing.

“More rent control freezes new housing,” he said. “There are all kinds of dimensions to the issue. The rent problem is significant. We’re hearing stories across the state, but artificial controls won’t get us out of this.”

About 160,000 households in California face court evictions every year, according to Tenants Together, an organization dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of California renters.

The housing crisis is worsening, and something has to be done about it.

“Every year, more and more people are being displaced,” said Camilo Sol Zamora, housing campaign co-director for Causa Justa :: Just Cause. The grassroots organization works to achieve justice for low-income San Francisco and Oakland residents.

“We have our tenant-rights clinic in Oakland, which provides low-income tenants with help,” Sol Zamora said. “Most of the people we see are women, mothers and immigrants. The housing crisis is worsening, and something has to be done about it.”

Causa Justa :: Just Cause was one of several organizations that gathered more than 500,000 signatures to place Proposition 10 on California’s ballot this November.

“This tells us as that the housing crisis is real, and people really identify with the struggle to pay rent and keep up with rent increases,” said Selene Chala, lead organizer for Causa Justa :: Just Cause.

Chala said she has one client who has been in her home for 22 years and was paying $700 a month in rent until recently.

“The owners of the property have raised it to $2,600,” Chala said. “Those are the increases we’re seeing for people who aren’t protected under rent control laws. That story is one of many.”

If Proposition 10 passes, it will allow local governments to once again implement rent-control laws. Groups supporting the repeal, including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action, plan to spend between $40-50 million on the effort.

Stephen Barton, former housing director for the city of Berkeley, said a properly designed rent control system will actually encourage new construction.

“When people with high-income jobs displace low-income tenants, they’re not part of a new market for new construction,” he said. “They don’t make enough. On the other hand, if you protect low-income tenants, the people who are coming in to take new higher-paying jobs can pay higher rents.”

Rent control advocates say repealing Costa-Hawkins would help millions of tenants, but it’s still not enough.

If the repeal is successful, California will provide a valuable blueprint for overturning legislation banning rent control. And as housing costs rise across the country, rent-control advocates in cities from Seattle to New York will be watching – and making plans for renewed campaigns in their hometowns.

“The rest of the country is looking at California,” Sol Zamora said. “This is a nationwide crisis. If we repeal Costa Hawkins, rent control will spread across the U.S.”


Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist and host of “Your Call,” a show about politics and culture on public radio station KALW. Her last Equal Voice story was, “Restore Oakland Tackles Opportunity and Justice Under One Roof.” Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

2018 © Marguerite Casey Foundation

Families Fight for Rent Control, Fair Housing in Calif.